Zenko Suzuki

Self-effacing Japanese prime minister

Zenko Suzuki, who served as Prime Minister of Japan from 1980 to 1982, was perhaps the epitome of the bland post-war Japanese leader at the mercy of wider political forces over which he had little control.



Zenko Suzuki, politician: born Yamada, Japan 11 January 1911; Prime Minister of Japan 1980-82; married (one son, three daughters); died Tokyo 19 July 2004.



Zenko Suzuki, who served as Prime Minister of Japan from 1980 to 1982, was perhaps the epitome of the bland post-war Japanese leader at the mercy of wider political forces over which he had little control.

Remembered mainly for a series of derogatory monikers, including "The Tape-Recorder" for his habit of reciting pre-learned answers (provided by bureaucrats) off by heart at press conferences, Suzuki surprised most commentators when he assumed the country's top political job in July 1980 after a lifetime of anonymous service within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which he helped establish after the Second World War.

Born in 1911 in Yamada, on the north-west coast of Japan, Suzuki followed his father into the fisheries industry, which exempted him from military service until late in the war. Between 1947 and 1980 he had served 13 times in the Japanese parliament and a record 10 terms as chairman of the LDP executive council, and it was his self-effacing ability smoothly to mediate between warring factions without offending anyone that earned him the support of the political giant Kakuei Tanaka. The embodiment of Japan's money politics, Tanaka had fallen from power in 1976 following a bribery scandal involving the Lockheed Company, but tirelessly worked behind the scenes to expand his influence within the LDP, eventually allowing him to propel Suzuki into the premiership after the death of Masayoshi Ohira in 1980.

It was a perfect illustration of the type of unacknowledged power that percolated through post-war Japanese politics and Suzuki suffered from the widespread resentment it caused. Largely ignored by the bureaucrats that actually run policy in Japan, and lampooned in the press for his apparent lack of intellect and inability to make political decisions, Suzuki then made a number of serious foreign policy errors.

During a meeting with the newly elected US President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the Prime Minister appeared unable to grasp the intricacies of the Japan-US security alliance, embarrassing Japan and reinforcing the image of a man out of his depth. And Suzuki is still blamed for poisoning relations with China for years after failing to diffuse a crisis over history textbooks that whitewashed Japan's role in the Second World War.

Suzuki struggled on through these disasters as well as a slumping economy brought on by the Reagan reforms of the early 1980s, before falling on his sword in November 1982, clearing the path for the much more muscular premiership of Yasuhiro Nakasone (another Tanaka protégé), who is credited with establishing closer ties with the US and China and repairing the damage Suzuki caused.

Zenko Suzuki's political legacy, however, lives on in his son, Shunichi Suzuki, who, as Japan's new environment minister, heads a lobby of pro-whaling lawmakers in the LDP that wants to end a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.

David McNeill

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